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Having spent many hours in quarantine fighting enemies in online games, I sat down at my computer last Wednesday to do battle with my greatest nemesis – Adobe graphic design programs. A long time later, I emerged from my room, sweaty and tired, clutching a PDF of an infographic about bringing active learning into digital teaching. During the process, I reflected on the parallels between gaming and digital teaching, and whether it could help design more interesting and engaging online teaching content.
I chose to use the retro 8-bit pixel art style for the infographic for a few reasons. Firstly, I can’t draw. But, perhaps more importantly, also because I was thinking a lot about video games when I was doing my research and writing it up. Partially because they have been my main form of quarantine entertainment (I don’t mean to brag, but I have managed to take Bristol Rovers to the Champions League final in FIFA), but also because they are the ultimate combination of ‘digital’ and ‘active’.
I’ll admit that there is a key element missing there (learning), but video games have managed to turn even the most mundane-seeming tasks into engaging experience. For example: Papers, Please – an engrossing interactive adventure about filling out immigration paperwork, or Death Stranding – where you can live out your wildest fantasies of being a post-apocalyptic postman, or even Euro Truck Simulator (I’ll let you figure that one out). And don’t get me started on the chore-simulator that is Animal Crossing.
Given the time frame for turning teaching digital, developing and coding in depth video games to teach your students about lubricant thickness in rolling element bearings, or Victorian illustrations of Arthurian legend might be slightly out of reach. But there’s certainly things that can be learned, or borrowed from games to make digital teaching as active and engaging as possible.
Variety Is The Spice of Life
All games have their core gameplay loops, whether it be shooting hordes of aliens, jumping from platform to platform, or Euro-Trucking. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only single thing you do, and they will all throw in new mechanics, new puzzles, or something completely different to keep things interesting and exciting.
You’ll probably have a core online teaching method too, like a pre-recorded video, online lecture, or problem sheet. But it’s important not to rely too heavily on a single thing. Consistency is great for sure, and you don’t want to confuse students by constantly throwing different things at them, but it’s easy to make small changes that stop students from feeling like they are living in groundhog day.
Adding quizzes, polls or Q&As during or after a block of teaching is one of the best ways to do this, and there are loads of tools out to design them and send them out to students. They allow students to use a different part of their brain, and consolidate the knowledge they have learned so far. You can also get students to teach each other. Ideally, students would work together in groups, but if this is difficult to arrange, you can split topics up into separate chunks, and have students work on them individually. Then, when they bring their work together, they have a complete overview of a topic. Even small changes, like using a mix of live and pre-recorded lectures goes a long way.
Timing is important too. With the notable exception of Euro Truck Simulator, it’s very rare for a game to make you do the same thing over and over for a large period of time. Games are split into levels, and have cutscenes and minigames to break things up. The same thing goes for teaching. 20-30 minutes is the gold standard for a single task or resource; if something is going to take longer than that, try to add breaks in, like active learning activities to cut content up into smaller chunks.
It might not seem like it, but all games have some level of challenge built in. You may think Euro Truck simulator is easy, but suddenly there’s congestion on the M4, and you’ve not even got enough fuel to make it to Leigh Delamere Services, let alone deliver the cargo to Swindon Depot. That’s what makes them satisfying. You feel like you’ve achieved something when you finish a section, or gain a level – you’ve overcome a challenge.
Active learning should be challenging too. Sitting through a 50 minute pre-recorded powerpoint lecture is difficult, but I’ve never felt particularly proud of myself for finishing one. Learning should be challenging because it makes you use knowledge in new and creative ways to solve problems. Now there’s context behind what you are learning, and you get a sense of achievement for completing something. Quizzes are one of the easiest ways to add a small challenge to lecture-based content, but there’s loads of ways to do it, and now assessment is open book, it’s going to need to test those higher skills rather than just knowledge recall. Smaller tasks embedded into teaching will help prepare students for this.
Challenges don’t just have to mean questions either. Setting work that gets students using creativity, like making posters, designing material for different audiences, making podcasts or revision videos all adds a different type of challenge and gives students a clear goal to work towards.
But, just like a video game, the same difficulty might not be right for everyone. Especially at the moment, with some students in very sub-optimal working environments. Optionality allows students to choose a level of challenge they are happy with, or if you want to set all students the same task, reassuring them that if they don’t do it, or can’t complete it fully, they won’t be penalised for it, and, wherever possible, offering them support.
Although being the greatest manager Bristol Rovers have ever seen is satisfying, so is beating your mate 5-0 with your new European Champions for the third time in a row. Part of the magic of games is getting to interact with your friends, or even total strangers. It’s why all of the most popular games are multiplayer. And it’s important now more than ever with all of us isolated from friends and family.
Online video and voice calling tools can be used to re-create seminars and discussion groups, or facilitate group work even though students can’t be in the same room. But, it’s important to provide a way to interact without using voice or video, like a forum, for students who might not have somewhere quiet to go, or not have access to reliable WiFi. If discussions are going to take place at a specific time, try to capture, or get students to capture, the key points so that students who couldn’t participate don’t miss out.
If you aren’t comfortable organising online discussions, that’s okay too, students will still find their own ways to collaborate. What’s important is giving them a reason to – whether it’s interesting debates or discussions, challenging work that they will need to work together on, peer learning, or specific group work.
I don’t imagine anyone’s going to throw their PS4 away now it’s been made redundant by their exciting active digital teaching. But having the mindset of a gem designer when designing online teaching can help a lot. Even if it’s just asking questions like ‘how long will this take a student to complete’, ‘how much of my teaching is pre-recorded lectures’ or ‘how am I going to keep students engaged now they are sitting 4 feet away from their Xbox, and they’ve just bought Euro Truck Simulator 2?’.
And if that doesn’t work, maybe just parachute every student into Coombe Dingle and have them fight over a single exam paper in a battle royale, Fortnite-style?
This might not seem like a time of opportunity. Everything is cancelled or postponed, and it seems like our worlds are shrinking (both metaphorically, and physically – something I’m acutely aware of as I’m currently working out of my dad’s bike shed). But there’s a chance here to take a huge stride towards something the university has been inching towards for some time. And it’s more than just a chance – I think in these extraordinary circumstances, there’s a serious need for it.
Co-creation is using students’ feedback, opinions and skills to develop learning and teaching. Like I say, it’s nothing extremely new to the university, but it’s usually on a much smaller scale. These aren’t business as usual times. I’m asking any heads of year, heads of school or anyone else involved in decision making around assessment and teaching to co-create like you’ve never co-created before. I’m mostly talking about final year students, as I think this is the most pressing concern, but this applies to end of year assessment for all students, and the transition to digital teaching for the last few weeks of term.
There’s a mountainous task ahead. Re-designing the in-person, timed, high-pressure, exam-based assessment that a lot of subjects use as a heavy proportion of a student’s final degree classification seems almost impossible. Or finding a way to account for a lack of support and teaching for students who don’t have exams. And not to mention it’s during a time of incredible mental stress on academics and students alike.
There’s plenty of literature out there about moving to online assessment – what works, what doesn’t, how to mitigate against plagiarism, loads of fun stuff. And as academics, it might be tempting to look through research and case studies, talk to other academics in other universities, and come up with a robust plan, backed up by literature and experts alike. But there’s a huge human element here that is never going to get captured without getting students heavily involved in the decision making process from the start.
So please, as soon as possible, start thinking about how you and your students are going to face this together. There’s an endless list of tools you can use to find out what your students want, and generate ideas, without anyone having to leave their house. You can send out polls, you can run q&as, you can use padlet to collect ideas and comments, you can use discord or skype to organise small group discussions. You can even use tools like Blackboard Collaborate to run online workshops. There’s a community of students who are scared, nervous, uncertain about their future, and feeling like huge decisions are about to be made that they have no control over but will have a massive effect on them, in the short and long term. You’ve got the tools to turn that anxiety into real solutions that work for staff and students and might even be able to set a precedent for student-led decision making in the future.
I assume the idea of workshops doesn’t fill you with glee. I know how hard it is to get students to engage with them, and you often only hear from the same sort of students. But I promise you, if you advertise through as many channels as you can, and are honest with students, and tell them you aren’t sure what to do, but want to work with them to figure it out, you will be inundated with students wanting to be involved (and not just the annoying ones who write blogs..).
Everything feels out of control at the minute, but this is our future, and if there’s a chance to have a say in it, we won’t miss it. We want our degree classification to be fair. We want everyone to have a chance to get what they are aiming for. We want it to represent everything we’ve done over the last three years. Every lecture, seminar, lab, late night in the library, hours spent searching for just the right paper; every moment when something finally clicked into place, every lecture watched five times on replay at half speed until we got it; the experiments that went right, the experiments that went wrong; the 9am monday lectures which we really wish we’d gone to more of, the 9am lectures we dragged ourselves into with a lounge stamp on our arm and a pounding headache, and all the other parts of the three or more years that we’ve given to this degree.
Please listen to your students. Trying to manage this chaotic situation must be a nightmare, and just like us, you’re only human and you can only do so much. In your shoes, I can’t even imagine what I’d do. But I know where I’d start.
The walls of Hermes’ office were covered in beautiful art – which we later found out had been painted by his dad. It was a lovely space to be in as we sat down early on a Monday morning and talked about his love for teaching.
Could you give us a quick preview of what you Humans of Bristol Lecture will be about?
I will be a very long story, told in a compact form. It’s about how people like Newton, Alan Turing, Michael Phelps, or even Boris Johnson, are all connected. And how, in particular, mathematics is the thread that connects all these stories. People are expecting me to talk about sperm, because that’s what I research, but what I really want is for the audience to come out with a view of something which is much bigger, which connects all of us and many branches of Science.
Do you think that teaching is more engaging and people find it easier to understand when it’s explained through a story rather than just as disconnected facts?
Yeah, because as human beings, we don’t like to be just told information. I say to my students: ‘mathematicians are not calculators; we are creative beings’. And mathematics is a technique that you use, like when you explore your creative space through painting. So, stories are a way to get through to students. I don’t see our work here in Engineering, or Mathematics, or Biology, to be any different from the Humanities, in which people work creatively. Creation is literally to merge things, and to bring to life. This is what we try to do, and stories are the basic way to do that. Otherwise, you lose the meaning behind mathematics.
For example, when we teach Calculus, students have to do hardcore calculations. This can sound really boring at first. But you could connect this to a story, ask where this calculation comes from and where it leads to, and discuss the impact that these calculations could potentially have in your life. Stories are a way for us to empathise, and that’s the main difference between humans and data.
We live in an era of data, right? Data science is everywhere. You’re flooded with data at this very moment, every single detail here is data. But humans do something different – we interpret this data, throwing away the things and the things we do want and then we put a meaning to that. We love to give a meaning to things that are meaningless. For example, when you see a beautiful view, it’s literally just data. Just light that’s coming through to your eyes. But if you think of it like that, it’s too dry, and what’s the point? So, we put a meaning to it and appreciate the view.
It’s the same with university. It’s not just information, it’s not just a degree. So, we to connect with our students, because it’s more than just data. We tell stories to teach, because it’s more than just the formulae.
Do you find sometimes that your students find teaching like this a little bit strange, especially if they are used to more traditional facts-only teaching?
Yes, sometimes, but I want them to see the bigger picture. Unfortunately, the everyday aspect of any job can be very hard. You have to have the same enthusiasm and motivation and face the same pressures every day. It’s the same when you’re studying a course – the calculations will be difficult, they will be complicated, the students will not understand them at first and they will struggle. But teaching can help to change this perspective. It’s all relative, right? So if you’re looking at the same thing every day, why not try looking at it from a different angle? We could look at it from a different perspective and ask, is this the same? Is th another learning? So really, teaching can change the lens that you’re looking through and help you to see your subject differently.
But you can’t necessarily do this every day. It’s something that as a lecturer you have to attempt and try out. I often think, ‘how many times have I already taught this?’ and ‘how can I learn something new from this?’. So, every time I teach a lecture, it’s always completely different. I teach 250-350 students, it’s a huge audience, but every cohort has a different personality each year. You have to treat them as individuals. For instance, I like to make jokes, but the same jokes don’t work every time with every group. It’s amazing, because each lecture then is unique and private to those students. It also depends how I feel on that day. I understand that my students are all different, and they understand that I’m just human.
I remember one day that was really funny, it was an absolutely mad day where I had meetings back to back and I had no time. I decided to cook some really nice Chinese noodles for lunch. By the time it came to the lecture, I really wanted to eat, but I didn’t have time. And I thought, maybe I can have lunch whilst I give the lecture? So I asked they students if it was alright and they said yes. And then I was talking in the lecture and I’d be like ‘wait, wait one minute while I have a bite of my lunch’, in the middle of 250 people, and they found this hilarious but I was just really hungry! But if you think about the alternative, and I hadn’t eaten, I would have been grumpy. I wouldn’t have been able to eat until like 6pm on my busy schedule, and that’s not sustainable, so it was so nice that the students were like ‘actually you know, it’s fine, he’s only human as well’ and there is this type of understanding between us.
It’s great that you’re showing the students that you’re just human. A lot of what we try to do with the Humans of Bristol University is to try and bridge the gap between students and staff, to show that we’re all just human.
Exactly, exactly. Another example was when I came up with a hand signal between me and my students. Because there are so many engineering students who know me, but I don’t always recognise them, or know their names. But if I go to the harbour, or the gym, they will be there. I thought it would be nice for us to have a way to identify each other. So I introduced this: I said, how about we have a pact between us, like a secret hand signal, so if you see me in the street, you do it, and I recognise and we can say ‘we’re family, I know you!’. And they really do it! If I go to the supermarket, I see them there, and they do it! It’s amazing. Sometimes when I’m really stressed, and having a bad day, and then I see someone do the signal, it really changes my mood you know, in that moment. It’s almost like there is a connection.
I think it’s difficult sometimes, for international students, with the different landscape and different culture and everything. But I’m the same, I’m married to an English woman and she works in Classics, and I always bring a lot of stories from my background. Especially about language, because I’m not always really good with how I express myself [in English]. But I started seeing students be more confident with me and coming to me after class. Especially sometimes in teaching, a word will come to me in Portuguese, and then I make a joke, and teach them a little bit about it, so they understand why I did it. I think all students can empathise with me, both the English and the overseas students, because I am a little bit of both. I’m Brazilian, but I’ve been here for 10 years. And I’m having a baby(!), who will be half English and half Brazilian, so I understand these problems.
It must make such a difference to students who have a dual-nationality identity crisis, or for those whose first language isn’t English to see someone talking openly about it. Clearly your students appreciate you and the way you teach – you only came to Bristol this year and have already been nominated as a Best of Bristol lecturer!
For me it was really a big surprise. But I had decided to take some risks. I’ve had a lot of teaching experience in the past at different places, and I’ve always been more cautious. But now I’ve reached the age where I know that students will be able to manage – they are very resilient and you don’t have to treat them like school children. You can experiment and try new things. I think I have a relationship with them and I think they respect me so I can actually take more risks.
For example, in their final lecture I made them a song. I took the lyrics from Wonderwall and changed them to put the mathematical equations in instead. I called it Mathemagical! At school in Brazil I had teachers that were very talented with a guitar and would sing us songs to teach us history. I always wanted to do it, but I never quite had the skills to do it. Especially for 700 people! What I’m trying to say is, it might sound that I’m very confident, but no, that was a risk. But the students made me feel very secure. It was pretty embarrassing, you know, I said, guys “we’re all going to sing together”. So I put the song on the projector and they did! That was wonderful. And again, it’s one of these things I don’t think I will manage to replicate. It was very organic for this particular group for this particular year. But it’s a nice thing because it’s special, isn’t it?
What advice would you give to lecturers at Bristol if they’re thinking of taking risks in their lectures, but aren’t feeling confident to do it?
To trust the students, because I think they are the best thermometer. Especially when they understand that staff are human. There are many ways we assess our teaching through feedback and forms. Students will come and go, but their feedback stays. Imagine if you’d been lecturing for 30 years and you receive feedback that says you are a ‘bad lecturer’. This might be true or maybe not, but this would be devastating for the lecturer.
If you take the perspective that we are all human, you can see that students are , and academics are. When they meet these two different worlds collide, and we can forget the human side of it. I think the best way to deal with this is to make yourself knowable as a person as well, not just a lecturer
I think a better model is just for everybody to be nice to each other. If someone is not managing to do something, try to be a bit more generous, it could be because of something you don’t know anything about, and you will not understand. We are all made of hundreds of crazy connections. But when you start to see students as attendance percentages or grades, then you lose their whole story.
I always tell my students: ‘you think I’m very clever because I’m teaching you this year, but the only difference between me up here and you sitting there is that I was born earlier.’ What’s the difference? It’s time. You can’t change time. Students will make mistakes, but they grow really fast in three years, four years. PhD and postdoc students, for example, if they stay in academia, will be the next lecturers So, you have to see the students as people and know that they’re very powerful. Many people are very clever here, but there will be always be people who are cleverer.
It’s really nice to hear someone talk passionately about teaching, as sometimes it feels like we’re such a research focused university.
I have to say that I’ve always loved teaching. My Dad is an artist and when I didn’t know what to do in my life he would always say ‘what is your service? What is the thing you’re going to give back?’. Teaching for me is the only way to have real impact in real time. All the other things I do, like research, they’ll take three weeks to three years to reach anywhere. And let’s say we published many papers, fantastic. But then again, they will take a few years and maybe a handful of people will read them. The real impact is generated here in universities as we teach students.
So the final question we’ve been asking all the Best of Bristol lecturers is: if you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol, what would it be?
I think it would be to add some kind of really creative event where students and lecturers could be on the same level, so you can forge connections. What I would love is to have connections that will potentially last over time because students graduate and then we don’t hear from them and don’t’ find out what they get up to. So, not really for teaching, but basically for making friends. Let’s do pottery or something!
I think that would be really great. I spoke to a postgraduate student for a Humans of Bristol interview and she said when she was an undergrad she felt like she didn’t have any connection to her lecturers, but when she started her postgrad they treated her like she was on their level.
This is a criticism for all the universities I think across the planet – they want to grow too much. Have more seats for the students. Grow more and more, have fewer and fewer ways to connect. I don’t think the infinite growth, capitalist growth, is made for humans. I think this will be a big mistake. I think the most successful universities will be the ones that we will still feel some kind of connection too. Because, really, the information you learn at university, anyone could find in their own time. You could study at home without a university. But here, the connections we make and the stories we hear, that’s the true learning at university. The exams you do you’re going to forget. But the important thing is how you learned and that you can do it by yourself. Here we are all just a bunch of humans learning together – why don’t we embrace this fully?
I met Andy in his office in the Life Sciences Building, and enjoyed a panoramic view of the ASS Library, talking about Best of Bristol, recognising that things don’t always go the way you plan (especially working as a scientist in the field), and how (re?)finding our love of nature might be the key to fighting the climate crisis.
Could you tell me a little bit about what your research group does and how that led into the reef acoustics research you’ll be talking about in your BoB lecture?
Our research has two main themes. The first is pure behavioural ecology, predominantly looking at social behaviour and vocal communication. Specifically, how vocalisations are used to mediate cooperation and conflict, and how animals eavesdrop on other species and learn to translate their foreign languages to gain additional information. We study these topics mostly with animals in their natural habitats, including the Dwarf Mongoose Research Project in South Africa and various bird species in Africa and Australia. I’ve worked on these general themes since my PhD, which rather frighteningly means for nearly 20 years now!
But then 10 or 11 years ago, we were interested in trying to work on a more applied subject; something that has more practical relevance and that ties to conservation. Around that time, Steve Simpson arrived from Edinburgh to work here in Bristol and we happened to have our first children within a couple of months of each other. So, we ended up getting to know one another by walking with babies in slings across the downs and occasionally stopping in a pub to have a pint. We talked about our backgrounds and research interests – Steve’s a marine ecologist and fish biologist, with a focus on underwater acoustics; my background is as a behavioural ecologist, with those interests in social behaviour and vocal communication – discussing what we could potentially work on together. And, we decided to investigate man-made noise as a major, but relatively little-considered, global pollutant. At that point, a decade ago, very little research had examined the impacts of noise on anything other than humans; in the oceans, there had been a few studies on cetaceans, but hardly anything on fish or invertebrates despite the huge numbers of species and their importance. So, we decided to set up a research programme to do that – looking at the impacts of noise, particularly in marine environments.
Our initial experiments were short-term playbacks of sound in aquaria. But, both Steve and I are field biologists at heart, and ideally you want to be studying animals in their natural habitats for ecological validity. So, a lot of the work that we have done since on the impacts of man-made noise takes place on coral reefs. Coral reefs are naturally very noisy places (many animals produce sounds for one reason or another), but there’s also lots of noise generated by humans from things like motorboats. While we’ve been out on those reefs studying noise impacts, we’ve also witnessed the devastation caused by global warming: the bleaching of the corals. We’ve shown that bleaching then changes the soundscape because species that make noise move away. Suddenly the reef sounds very different and that has knock-on consequences for the recruitment of fish too.
A lot of our work now is therefore considering how human actions change coral reef soundscapes and what impacts that has for wildlife. That can be pretty depressing, but we are also working to find and test potential solutions to mitigate the problems and improve the situation moving forward.
And one of the ways to improve the situation is by using noise to encourage some of the species that have been lost from the reef back?
Yes, absolutely! In terms of the soundscape, it’s worth giving a little bit of background. Coral
reefs are inherently noisy places. Despite what Jacques Cousteau said about a ‘silent world’, the underwater world is really noisy and no more so than on coral reefs. They’re the cities of the ocean – bustling environments where fish and invertebrates are generating lots of sounds to communicate with one another. Collectively, that means each reef has a unique sound that it generates. And those soundscapes are vital to many species.
Soon after hatching, lots of marine creatures head out into the open ocean for a period of weeks or even months, and then come home to a reef for the rest of their lives. One of the cues that they’re using to find a home is sound. With bleaching events, the soundscape is changing and becoming diminished, and we have found with experiments that is less attractive to those returning tiny creatures; they are less likely to recruit to and to settle in areas with degraded soundscapes compared to healthy ones. However, there’s a possibility that you can try and reverse that by enhancing the current sounds with playback, something we call acoustic enrichment. That’s playing back healthy reef sounds on more degraded habitats, to boost the sound of them. What we found in an experiment we ran for 40 days is that if you do that, not only do you initially attract more fish, but that the community rebuilds faster. You’re kickstarting the recovery process on these degraded reefs. It’s not a silver bullet solution – you need to do it in combination with other restoration efforts – but if you can accelerate the initial recovery processes and provide hope. You need those fish and those invertebrates to help the coral by cleaning away the algae and creating space for the corals to grow. Corals alone can’t rebuild themselves or, if they do, it’s incredibly slow; you need this synergy going on, so you get this positive feedback loop.
Even if such restoration methods are small-scale, they are important; you need to build incrementally. If we think that the only solution is to solve climate change, the climate crisis, then we’re in trouble, because that isn’t going to happen overnight. It requires nations to agree to something and that isn’t going to happen quickly. But, if you can start making a difference locally, then that gives hope to people locally and then more broadly, that things could be better. Also, for the species that are there, you’re potentially building some level of resilience. So, although you might be acting in one small regard, if it builds resilience for bigger problems then that could have positive consequences, and potentially give us breathing space to solve the bigger issues. If everything dies, before we can solve the big issues, then it is hopeless. And we don’t want it to be hopeless. There are good reasons to try to make a difference at a localised level whenever possible.
Are you able to bring your research into teaching? And do you find that that’s useful for students and for yourself?
Yes, absolutely. Obviously, it depends a little on what you’re teaching. When you’re teaching first year classes, that’s about general principles and broad-scale ideas, but I still try and bring in a little bit of research because you want it to be exciting and inspiring. As you go through different years, increasingly it’s more and more research-led. In terms of third-year courses, you’re hoping to describe examples of cutting-edge research as part of what’s going on.
I think it’s really nice if at least some of those examples are your own, because then students are not seeing you as just someone standing at the front delivering this material and walking out again. You’re telling them about your story, and your research and your anecdotes, and what you’re doing in the field and what you’re doing research wise. And that, I think, personalises it and makes a better connection and hopefully makes it even more exciting, rather than it being in the abstract. Science is not just about the hypotheses, the methods, the findings; it’s also about the journey to get there, including all the things that went wrong. I really like putting those kinds of stories and our own research into lectures. Whether the students like hearing about it, you’d have to ask them…
Well I enjoy hearing about it, even just the little things like getting us to sing happy Birthday to your daughter helps to make more of a personal connection (Andy got his entire 3rd year Social Evolution module to sing his daughter Happy Birthday at the start of a lecture – apparently she loved it, but not quite as much as the unicycle she was given).
I think that’s half the joy of teaching – it’s not just about imparting knowledge. Because, if it was just about imparting knowledge, I could send you all an email or video-record a lecture, stick it up on Blackboard and be done with it. I think, or at least hope, that lots of teaching is actually about inspiring, rather than imparting facts. You can read books and you can read papers and you can gain facts. If all I do as a lecturer is give you a bunch of facts, that’s pretty dry; it’s also not really that different from finding it out for yourself. To me, it’s much more about trying to inspire a love of the natural world and of biology. If that love, and an understanding of the importance of the natural world, is there then that hopefully pervades the thinking of people whatever walk of life they go into. Not just those who are going to be biologists, but those who become lawyers or business leaders or financiers. If the next generation of decision-makers have an understanding of the natural world and its importance, then we have a better chance of rescuing the planet before it’s too late.
You can do the research, but you need people to put it into practise. You can shout from the rooftops about the problems, but we need to convince big businesses and governments to make some fundamental changes. Convincing them is much easier if embedded in those companies and in those walks of life are people who have an inherent understanding and love of the natural world, because then you’re not beating against a closed door; you’ve got a starting point. So, I think a lot of that is what the teaching is about, rather than just delivering another set of facts. To be honest, it would be very dull if lecturing was all about just that too. It’s fun to be able to throw in current ideas, your own stories and to have more of a dialogue with students.
Do you think that education about the climate crisis and teaching that gives people a love of the natural world needs to be embedded in all courses, not just subjects like Biological Sciences?
Yes, I would think so. Ultimately, the climate crisis is one of the most pressing problems, if not THE most pressing problem, for the human population. It’s such an enormous challenge, that we clearly aren’t going to solve it only with a small cohort of people doing research – we need people in all walks of life to have an understanding of how major this problem is, and if a solution is going to come, it isn’t going to be one thing that needs changing. It’s going to be a multitude of different things that are going to have to change. And that means all levels
from individuals right up to governments. And as I said, if that’s going to be the case, then you need people in all walks of life to have an understanding, and ideally a love of, the natural world. So that doesn’t mean all of a sudden everybody has to do a year of biology and global change. But, I think it is something that probably needs greater air-time, across subjects, rather than just being in biology or geography or environmental science.
Even within Biological Sciences, we’re looking to increase that level of training compared to even a decade or five years ago. We need to embed more of those ideas right from the start of our degree programmes and then all the way through rather than it just being the occasional course or it being something you hear about on the side. We’re constantly adapting degree programmes, as any department will do, but this is one really clear thing where we’re ramping up through all the years. However, I agree with you, that some of that thinking and training should be apparent more broadly than in just biological degrees.
Do you find that the Biological Sciences department is quite responsive to change and you’re able to adapt the curriculum to respond to these kinds of things quite well?
You can think about that at two levels. In terms of individuals within the department, then yes. Because all of us as biologists recognise these issues. I think there’s a general feeling that we need to be teaching more about, for example, the climate crisis. Not to the exclusion of everything else, of course, but there needs to be more right from year one. And often that teaching and training should be mandatory; it’s as important as anything else at the moment. Therefore, everybody should get some basic training in that even if you then decide to specialise in other regards later on, which is absolutely fine. We are in lots of discussions at the moment about how we might embed that better and where in the degree programmes that might fall.
But, making any changes is, sadly, slightly more complicated than us thinking ‘Wouldn’t this be a good idea?’. It’s not that we’re necessarily having pushback from the University. It’s just a procedural thing that requires boring, long paperwork changes and sign-off, rather than anybody saying there’s fundamentally something wrong about wanting to change. It just can’t happen overnight; you have to go through those processes. However, it’s certainly something that is in progress at the moment.
Going back to what you mentioned earlier about talking about when things have gone wrong in experiments – do you think that’s something that needs to be talked about more at University? It’s not always going to be perfect, things are going to be difficult and you’re going to fail sometimes..
I definitely think so, and I think that’s important at different levels. I think it’s important for individuals to recognise, but also then in terms of the bigger picture about the fact that science isn’t perfect! I sometimes joke that one day, if I ever had the chance, I’d like to write a book in which for each chapter, the first page is just some Methods section from a published paper and the rest of the chapter is the story of how that came about. When you read the Methods section of a paper, everything sounds completely smooth. But I know from my research, the reality is all the things that went wrong, all the iterative changes that you had to go through to get yourself to a finalised project. Showcasing this to earlier career people is really important; it’s never the case that we had these plans, we went out, we implemented it, thanks very much. The reality is that what you see written is the endpoint of all sorts of failures and hardships and changes and iterations. I think that’s really important for people to know. And if giving examples of where we have had epic failures is useful, then I am all for giving those examples (even if they result from my own stupidity)! There’s actually a lovely hashtag that does the rounds about epic fieldwork failures.
Yeah, I heard about someone in the department who glued themselves to a crocodile…
Yeah, I think she got stuck to a crocodile whilst trying to attach a tag! To me, that is part of the joys of science; part of the fieldwork journey is accepting it doesn’t go right all the time (in fact, most of the time). Half of your training really is about how to overcome that rather than thinking you can design something perfectly sitting at a desk, go out, get it right. That’s not how science operates. But that’s not the impression sometimes created by all these papers, that have these perfect Methods sections. Maybe we need to talk even more about that to make that clear.
When things are going wrong out in the field what is it that keeps you going and keeps you motivated?
A love of science and of the natural world. These days, I get to do precious little fieldwork myself, now I’ve got kids and loads of commitments here. So, I sometimes think, what am I missing? And actually, some of what I miss is simply being out in the natural world. Sure, you’re spending a lot of your time in those situations focused on whatever species you happen to be studying, but there’s all this wonder going on around you. You can’t help but see and be part of it if you’re out twelve hours a day for six months. It’s also lovely because often the next big questions to tackle are inspired by watching your study species; you’re in the ecosystem and seeing things you can’t read about. Lots of the best scientific ideas come because, day in day out, you are with a study organism and you’re seeing something and then all of a sudden you start thinking ‘hang on a minute; that’s a bit weird’. And then you realise it’s happening more than you thought, because now you’re seeing it happen. You think ‘what the hell is that about?’ And that’s the next research question.
When things are going wrong, don’t get me wrong, you can get enormously frustrated. You just have to find a way through it. When I was working in southern Africa and spent all day chasing birds through the forest, I used to go for a run on the beach or take my dog out or go horse riding or go drink too many Castle lagers in a bar in the evening. Just trying to have some balance and remember that everything working all the time is never going to happen and you need to pick yourself up to go again!
I think the other thing that’s really apparent now is not just about failures in fieldwork, but you have to overcome bigger stuff and have that resilience. It’s this idea about ecological grief, the idea that we are changing the planet at such an unprecedented rate; it’s devastating to see. If you see bleached coral reefs and you are used to seeing them as these vibrant cities of colour – one of our PhD students evocatively says you find yourself crying into your mask
underwater. And you can’t help but be affected by that. Something we’ve started talking about and writing about more is what do you do about that. Because, if that anxiety and that grief overwhelms you, it’s very difficult to find solutions and think how to move forward. How do we restore those ecosystems if we’re paralysed by that grief?
I think there’s two things here. One is that environmental scientists don’t have much in place to help them through this. I think we’ve got lots we can learn from the medical profession and from the military, for example. In those walks of life, there is lots of grief, but they have much more in place to help members of those professions to overcome that grief and then keep going and move forward. I also think it would help if more and more people were to talk about ecological grief, so that people experiencing this didn’t feel like they can’t say anything because they’ll just be told ‘get a grip, get over it’. You shouldn’t have to be dispassionate as a scientist all the time. If you care about the natural world and you’re seeing it be damaged day in, day out, then it’s perfectly acceptable to be anxious about that or to feel grief. Even just the act of talking about it can help. And then it’s about trying to solutions? Those solutions don’t have to be 20 years in the future at a government level; we can start building solutions at a local scale. Start to make a difference and start to feel positive. And if so, maybe that itself helps with the grief and you get this positive feedback loop.
So as the final question – we’ve been asking the same question to all of the BoB lecturers this year. If you could make one change to learning and teaching here at Bristol (not thinking too much about time and money) what would it be?
If there were genuinely no constraints, financial, time wise or anything, and if we ignore for a moment issues about carbon offsetting, I would take everybody out into the natural world more, and embed them in it for a bit. At the moment, the constraints in terms of university and school teaching mean you might do the occasional day trip or just possibly you do a week-long field course. But, I’d love to show people the joy of being out in the natural world and seeing what’s there, and also experience first-hand some of that devastation that we’re causing. Ideally, I’d also show them how we can make a difference. So, you can get that wonder, the devastation and the idea that we need to think about the solutions. Rather than just lecturing about the issues, telling stories and having them as slides, be able to put people into that experience themselves. That’s always going to be more powerful. Lots of our undergraduates or our postgraduates are lucky enough to have travelled, but lots haven’t. And so it would be a chance to open their eyes, not just through lecture slides, but by being somewhere, like diving on a coral reef or walking through a forest or out in the Kalahari Desert, whatever it is, that would be an amazing thing to be able to do.
Dr Rose Murray is an Associate Director of Learning and Teaching and a Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences. We sat down in Rose’s office in the Life Sciences Building, the home of all the school’s teaching focussed academics, to chat about her journey through Bristol and her love for her job and the city.
What’s your journey been like in higher education and in Bristol
did biology as an undergraduate student, I actually did it in Bristol, so I’ve
never left Bristol. It’s a tribute to how much I like the place!
my third year I decided I wanted to do a PhD. So I applied for lots of
different PhDs, and got some rejections at first. I got about three rejections
before I got any acceptances – it’s important to remember it’s not always the
first one that you’ve set your heart on. But in the end a really good
opportunity came up in the building, working on plant viruses.
as I was coming towards the end of my PhD, there were seven members of staff
going on sabbatical at once. That was proving really difficult because, oh my
god, you’ve got seven members of staff not teaching, how on earth are we going
to deliver all that teaching? So they created three job posts for teaching
associates. I applied for one of those and got it. That was initially only a 10
month contract and then it extended here and there, and gradually, the job
became a real position within the department. Rather than seeing it as a kind
of temporary stopgap, it was actually ‘Oh, this can work really well. Why don’t
we build this into the structure of our school?’.
few years later, my current position came up – they wanted someone a bit more
senior to lead the pathway three team which is the teaching focussed lecturers.
So I applied for that and got it. Initially that they’d offered the job to
someone else much more senior who had 10 years experience at the time. I was in
my late 20s so really didn’t feel like I had any experience. Pretty terrifying.
And then the other person didn’t accept. So it was like ‘oh gosh, I’ve got the
job. That’s really scary’. But I grew up and my confidence grew. I knew I was
always going to enjoy it, but I was able to take ownership of the job.
we’ve got a team of 10 of us who sit in our office (9 Biological Sciences, 1
Earth Sciences). Our mission is to teach, but also to help promote teaching
excellence within the school. A number of us sit on the Teaching Committee,
where our job is to drive innovation, which I think we’ve done through a number
of different initiatives over the last few years. We try to have that headspace
where we are thinking about how we can improve what we do, give the students a
better student experience and learning experience, and be more inclusive. All
of these different things that, to be perfectly honest, a pathway one member of
staff who does teaching and research really just doesn’t have the time to even
think about. I don’t know how they do their job! Managing a research group;
thinking about the next grant; teaching; doing all the school admin jobs, it’s
really, really tough.
Do you think it’s really important that the department and the
University put more in place to support pathway three?
absolutely. Without a doubt, and I think it’s going to be done right.
conduct our own pedagogic research and go to all the teaching and learning
conferences so we engage in that network, and speaking to peers who are in the
same position as us, we’ve seen it can be done wrong. You can be hired in and
seen as a sort of, not a real academic. That can be how a lot of traditional
academics see us, which can be quite hard. And I think I’m guilty of feeling a
bit defensive about that. Even though our department is very supportive. Also
in other institutes, pathway three staff are in a different building.
So there’s a physical divide?
yeah. A really nice thing about us moving into this office is that it’s in the
middle of the building, so it’s in the heart. We do have that integration. And
we’re trying to become more integrated into the workings of the school and also
share good practice.
think it’s essential if we’re ever going to keep up with our competitors. We
are a Russell Group University, we’re really strong with our research, and
we’ve got a really good reputation. But many of our competitors who are might
not be near us in the traditional standings because they aren’t a research
strong University can be a lot more focused and engaged in their pedagogy. The
majority of their staff will be like us, in that their main job is teaching and
thinking about teaching.
are a top research university and our teaching is research-led – there are
plenty of arguments for saying that, even if our teaching wasn’t very good,
that being taught by top researchers is a good thing because it filters through
to the teaching, and when you do your practical projects, you do it a
researcher’s lab, for example. But I think the best approach is to have this
mixture where research feeds into teaching and we’re working together so that
we’re all-round excellent, not just in teaching.
What would you say research-led teaching means to you?
actually did a workshop on this, there’s like four different meanings! What
some people see it as is teaching by researchers, which is one way of looking
at it. I think a more important way of looking at it is research-informed
teaching. So you are teaching the research that is happening. You are teaching
students to be researchers. Research-informed teaching is not only informed by
the subject, but also by pedagogic research. Those come together. At our third
year, for example, our units are very much research-led or research-inspired,
because we don’t teach on subjects that we’re not experts in. Whereas first
year you might be teaching stuff you’re not an expert in because your expertise
is too niche. Although, I don’t think anyone’s ever really an expert until
they’ve had a lifetime of experience in a given field!
It’s great when you see a lecturer clearly passionate about what
they’re teaching about, and I guess that’s because they’re researching it.
In your interview for the Bristol Teaching Awards a few years ago,
you made a really great point about how you can use your passion for a subject
to in to persuade people that parts of biology they might not think are
interesting, are in fact, really interesting. Do you find it challenging
teaching subjects that students might already have preconceptions about?
can be. We have a general first year where you learn everything from microbes
to humans, the whole diversity of life. It can be a bit frustrating for zoology
students that don’t want to learn about plants. It’s a challenge, but it’s
definitely more fun because you can get your passion across. Why was I drawn to
working in plants? Things like food security and the global, grand challenges
we’re facing. That’s what I try to communicate.
always going to get people that are, even after all of that, still not
interested and that’s fine. That’s just part of life. You know, some subjects
are interesting to some people. But what is quite nice is that you see in the
feedback that some people really enjoyed it. Which makes it worthwhile.
can be challenging, but that’s more of a motivator for me than a deterrent, I
think. It’s much more gratifying to convert people than to just be preaching to
In the Molecular Genetics module you taught on last year, I really
enjoyed that you made your lectures exciting and tried to mix it up with breaks
and quizzes. Is that something you enjoy doing too?
try! Molecular genetics was quite a hard one actually because it’s quite
content heavy. It’s much easier for the first year but even in third year I try
to do it, because it’s good practice that I’ve learned about. I’m sure you’ve
heard that the attention span of your typical student is about 20 minutes, so
it’s hard work sitting through an hour’s worth of content. You can’t expect
someone to take it all in.
no-one wants to be teaching to a room full of people who are quite clearly
drifting off, who won’t be able to be engaged and interested. So trying to
break it up with quizzes or silly things can sometimes just help to give the
brain a rest. Trying to do things interactively is also really fun. It can give
a different feel to the lecture and it wakes you up as a participant because
you’re doing something, you’re not just listening passively.
breaks came up in student staff liaison committee as a positive thing from the
students, so it’s something that we’ve tried to encourage the whole school to
do. But some lecturers will feel more confident to do it than others. It’s
always harder to try new things as you get more experienced. Especially when
it’s out of your comfort zone. It’s part of our mission to try to assist with
that, not shoehorn people into a position that they’re not going to feel
also moving towards more flipped learning as well – having videos or reading to
do beforehand, and then in the session, it’s a lot more interactive. They are
generally much better for learning – you obtain that higher order learning
through problem solving. I think lectures have a place and they are great ways
to deliver a lot of content. But we’ve got a diverse student population, which
is great, and that usually encompasses a lot of different learning styles. To
be more inclusive, not only for different learning styles, but different
backgrounds and different groups of people, you’ve got to diversify your
teaching style. And it’s much more fun. It’s fun to try something new and do
something a bit different and to interact with students. You can do more to
help. If all we need from lecturers is to stand at the front and talk, why
don’t we just record everybody and we can play that every year? What’s our
role? We need to carve out a purpose and make it a meaningful and worthwhile
experience to come to university.
I suppose you’re probably used to it now, but the thought of it
would terrify most students, do you find it quite nerve wracking standing up to
give a lecture to 250 people?
my supervisor said a lecturing opportunity was coming up, in my head I was like
‘No way, I don’t want to stand and lecture people, that’s terrifying’. But
there was a side of me that realised this was a valuable opportunity and would
be a really good thing to do. And that first lecture was mortifying. I spoke a
million miles an hour and I finished it in 35 minutes. It got to half past and
I thought ‘oh no, I’m nearly at the end’.
not so much of a problem now but it was terrifying, absolutely terrifying! But
it’s a great skill to feel comfortable with, public speaking is so useful. And
I do still get nervous, but so much less than I ever was as a student, back
then it was the most terrifying thing to do!
We had to do presentations for our practical project this week and
I was so nervous. Did you have project students this year?
did, myself and Bex Pike had students working on pedagogy-based projects. For
example, some of our students were looking at how education about climate
change can change the outlook of school students. Things like giving a
practical solution to climate change. That was a really fun lesson! We went and
planted loads of trees and they evaluated whether the students had a more
positive outlook on climate issues. They wanted to see if they could inspire
hope, although it was hard to pin that down exactly. But we saw a much more
positive outlook, which was obviously a really good thing, especially when
eco-anxiety is so prevalent. It’s been really fun to branch out and try
something different. It’s great for the students if they do want to go into
teaching which is a massive destination for many of our graduates. It seems
right to offer something like that.
Students seem to love the Practical Projects and the Field Courses
we do in Biological Sciences, there’s always really positive feedback,
particularly for the field courses. How is that as a teaching experience for
a great thing that we offer. Thankfully, it’s recognised at our school level
that it’s a really valuable part of our degree. We hope that we never, never
get rid of it. Even though it’s a huge investment in terms of staff time, and
money. I think at any one time, there could be as many as like 17 different
courses choose from. Obviously, compared to just delivering all of that
teaching to one group, it costs a lot more. But all of the staff that do it
love it. You actually get to know your students and you’re much more involved,
doing far more practical activity. Students get to know us as people not just lecturers
at the front of the lecture theatre.
know from personal experience having gone through it myself that it [attending
field courses] was the turning point in our year when everyone started to get
to know each other and suddenly this network comes together.
why as part of overhauling first year, we’re bringing in a field trip in week
three for the entire cohort. We want there to be a stronger community for our
students. It’s better for everybody that it exists. It’s better for students
because you have more people to talk to. The more comfortable you feel with the
other people the more likely it is that you’re going to share a wellbeing issue
and support each other. There’s a lot of studies that say that the greater the
community, the better learning experience.
It’s really fantastic that you’re integrating community into the
So as a final question – you’ve been in Bristol all the way
through your university career, what is it about the city or the university
that you love?
a small town girl, I’m from the West Country. That’s not to say I didn’t look
at going to lots of different places. But then when I came to Bristol I just
settled in really well. There’s these big anxieties before you come to Uni, and
I’d already gone through these, so I thought why would I want to have to do all
that over again?
love it here, I love the architecture and the way the city looks. I love that
there’s so much to do here but it’s a small enough that you can pretty much
walk everywhere. I like that it’s a green capital which feels really in tune
with a lot of work that we do. And the people are great.
Why not Bristol? I’ve got my dream job. I feel incredibly lucky every day to come to work. Honestly, I look forward to it. Well, maybe not every day! But whenever anyone asks what I do I feel so proud to say what I do as part of this institute. I can legitimately say I absolutely love what I do. I would never want to do anything else. I can’t think of a job that I would enjoy more, even though that’s a bit corny!